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Liberty, equality, and fraternity in lockdown

Philosopher and patron of Humanists UK, Alan Haworth, discusses his view on liberty, equality, and fraternity whilst the country remains in lockdown. 

You can keep up with our various Humanism At Home posts by following the #HumanismAtHome hashtag on Twitter and on Facebook, and by following the Humanists UK Soundcloud and YouTube accounts. 

If you don’t believe in God you must also reject accompanying beliefs. For example, you can’t believe that the present pandemic is a case of divine retribution. Nor can you rely upon what is, apparently, Donald Trump’s favoured solution to the situation, namely prayer. You must also recognise that you have no excuse. To justify your actions in moral terms – that is, to explain them to others as much as yourself – you have nothing to go on but your own reason. In the absence of a divine standard of morality, that is how things must be.

Still, it shouldn’t take a sophisticated philosophical argument  to remind you that you that, under present circumstances, the right thing to do is to continue following official guidelines, to practice ‘social distancing’ and to ‘stay at home’. At least, it shouldn’t if, like me, you take the obvious line that morality is, in essence, a matter of according equal value to every life.  The consideration applies  to the short term, however. Long term probabilities are more interesting and more difficult to estimate. To be honest, I’m not sure that it takes a writer of books on political philosophy to figure those out.  Since I’ve been asked, however, I’ll have a try, – so here goes. My account will turn out to be rather bleak, I’m afraid, but shall be trying to be accurate.

Let me take liberty, equality, and fraternity in turn. (Nothing to do with the French: It’s just that the familiar threefold categorisation provides this piece with a convenient structure). To begin with liberty, then, it’s true that staying at home – there being no alternative  – can feel like incarceration. At present, though, the factors keeping most of  us at home are – I would say – common sense and fear; that is, the common sense judgment that venturing abroad might spread the virus, fear of contracting it oneself, and fear of the social disapproval a breach of the guidelines would inevitably engender. If liberty is, as some philosophers define it,  ‘subjection to the will of another’, then only the third item on the list, social pressure, can count as a violation of liberty, but even that is not subjection by the usual method; methods involving force and the threat of force. We know that there are police out there, however, willing to enforce the guidelines, and that there have already been cases where they have done exactly that. As time goes on and the situation changes, will there be an increase in the number of such cases? If so, are we likely to end up with a ‘police state’, or something approaching one? I’d like to think not, but I hope I’m right. (In connection with the subject of liberty, it has been argued, further, that police states and their like are better than liberal democracies  at dealing with emergencies such as the present one. The abject record of the Trump administration under present circumstances, when compared with that of China, suggests as much. I’ll put that possibility to one side, however.)

As for equality, the tiresome mantra that ‘we’re all in it together’ , which is – I take it -intended to reinforce a sense of social cohesion, is in fact beside the point; for, while it may be true that we’re all in it together, some of us are in it more than others. Some of us are only in it up to our ankles, as it were. For the relatively well-off, with private space in which to move around and time on their hands, the main problem has been boredom, nothing more. But some are in it up to their necks; those who live in small flats for example, perhaps with children and with no access to open space other than the local park. The same applies, for a different reason, to those ‘front-line’ workers currently risking their health. Even their lives, as they confront the crisis.

Finally, what of fraternity? ‘Solidarity’ might be a better term. Well, the ostensive purpose of the public demonstrations of applause which have been taking place each week since the crisis began,  has been to demonstrate support for ‘front-line’ workers, especially those in the NHS. However, they have also served to reinforce the sense of solidarity and social coherence needed in these weird times. This is, however, a type of phenomenon which can be easily commandeered by the propaganda machine. As with ‘We’re all in it together’, so there has been much invocation of, ‘the blitz spirit’; a rhetorical trope which overlooks the fact that, by the end of World War Two, German bombs had killed nearly 30,000 people in London alone. It’s not a great reason for nostalgia.   What to do in the long term is a further question.

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